The Laws of Image
70 Pages Posted: 2 Dec 2012 Last revised: 16 Dec 2014
Date Written: November 30, 2012
We live in an image society. Since the turn of the 20th century if not earlier, Americans have been awash in a sea of images throughout the visual landscape. We have become highly image-conscious, attuned to first impressions and surface appearances, and deeply concerned with our own personal images – our looks, reputations, and the impressions we make on others.
The advent of this image-consciousness has been a familiar subject of commentary by social and cultural historians, yet its legal implications have not been explored. This article argues that one significant legal consequence of the image society was the evolution of an area of law that I describe as the tort law of personal image. By the 1950s, a body of tort law – principally the privacy, publicity, and emotional distress torts, and a modernized defamation tort – had developed to protect a right to control one’s image and to be compensated for emotional and dignitary harms caused by interference with one’s public image. This law of image produced the phenomenon of the personal image lawsuit, in which individuals sued to vindicate or redress their images. The rise of personal image litigation over the course of the 20th century was driven by Americans’ increasing sense of protectiveness and possessiveness towards their public images and reputations.
This article offers an overview of the development of the image torts and personal image litigation in the United States. It offers a novel, alternative account of the history of tort law by linking it to developments in American culture. It explains how the law became a stage for, and participant in, the modern preoccupation with personal image, and how legal models of personhood and identity in turn transformed understandings of the self. Through legal claims for libel, invasions of privacy, and other assaults to the image, the law was brought, both practically and imaginatively, into popular fantasies and struggles over personal identity and self-presentation.
Keywords: Privacy, libel, reputation, right of publicity, tort law
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